Interview, Magazin

»How else would we describe all those in-between things?«

An interview with Nayeem Mahbub. Last year, his film »Continental Drift« opened the 1st Weimar Poetry Film Award. In the interview, Nayeem talks about studying filmmaking and how the film was made.

Poetryfilmkanal: Your film was produced within the DOC Nomads program. Tell us about the program and how it influenced or changed your way of film making?

Nayeem Mahbub: Doc Nomads is a unique master’s programme for documentary film directing. It involved living and filming in Portugal, Hungary and Belgium over two years. As you can imagine it was both very challenging and very stimulating. I definitely learned to notice things I had never thought about and to step firmly out of my comfort zone when making films. We were constantly facing language barriers, so thinking about the presence or absence of language and what that means became a default part of our process. The students in the programme became close friends and collaborators, even to this day. So our styles, thoughts and attitudes continue to rub off on each other.

Actually you’re living in Sweden? Why is that?

My partner is from Sweden and after several years of living apart, I made the move to be in the same place as her.

Your film could be understood as a poetry film. But you didn’t consider yourself a poet when you wrote the script? Did you?

That’s true. I was working on an idea about asylum centres in Belgium but was having trouble finding access to tell the subjective kind of story I wanted. Then the combination of a few events I witnessed in Brussels started to come out in a form very similar to the final text in the film. At the time I assumed these would be notes for developing my idea further but I found it very powerful and kept it, with a few refinements. I have to acknowledge my fellow Doc Nomad and friend Sohel Rahman, a Bengali poet and filmmaker, who helped me a lot with refining the language.

Did it change your reception of your own film when it got recognition as a poetry film?

Definitely. Actually, the word »poetry« was mentioned quite soon after I first showed the film in Brussels. At the time I preferred to let people interpret it as they saw it as my concern was with the cumulative effect of text, image and sound. When the film participated in the Weimar Poetry Film Award I started to think more about the possibilities of textual poetry as a deliberate strategy in my films.

What about poetry? Does it matter for you? Do you have favorite poets?

I am a Bengali from Bangladesh, so poetry is a very integral part of our culture. In fact, written poetry developed much earlier in the Bengali language than prose. The words of Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Lalon Shah and Jibonanda Das always strike a chord inside of us. I’d hesitate to name a favourite poet although I’ve recently been reading a collection of Anna Akhmatova’s poems which have really bowled me away. I admit I was totally ignorant of her existence before I came across this book. Poetry very much matters to me, how else would we describe all those in-between things?

In your text you’re mentioning the »Operation Desert Storm«. That’s very detailed, while the message of your film in general doesn’t seem to be so specific. Why is that?

You’re right that the film as a whole is dealing with the concepts of war and migration in a universal form, although there are fragments of specific events (»here are houses on fire«; »here is a ship bound by/ international convention«). The reference to »Operation Desert Storm« (the Gulf War of 1991) is pointing out that what our main character experiences stretches back many years. Of course it goes back even further than 1991, but recall that the narrator of the text is me, describing meeting a man who has migrated to Europe but lost everything. »Operation Desert Storm« was a distant televised event when I was six or seven years old. But it crystallizes into something real being in Europe in the mid 2010s. What was a plastic reality on TV for me in my childhood was anything but that for millions of people. In the final analysis, I’d say I mention »Operation Desert Storm« to point out a historical continuum.

When you made the film, the »refugee crisis« were becoming more and more urgent in the media. When it was screened at Weimar, the intensity of the sentiment of life thrilled the audience very much. Was has changed in between? Would you make the film the same way now, three years later?

The film is actually almost four years old as it was made between December 2013 and January 2014. At that time the »refugee crisis«, as it has been dubbed by the media, had not escalated to the extent it would in the summer of 2015, although migration was still a matter of life or death for many, many people. I mentioned when I was in Weimar that my film seems almost quaint now, in light of the narratives and images that are now associated with it. I made a film that tried to understand the physical and emotional violence involved in migration and asylum in a fairly straightforward way, by evoking the toll it takes on one person. I think the events of the last few years have changed the questions we are asking, the magnitude of the crisis and lives effected mean that individual experience is almost washed away by the deafening roar of this enormous situation. It’s overwhelming. I’m not downplaying my film at all, I’m enormously proud of it. It simply strikes me as a film made before the summer of 2015. New dimensions have entered the public consciousness, and as a result I don’t think I could ignore those if I had made the film today.

Can you tell us more about the visual idea you’re followed? 

On a very basic level, the text describe an encounter at a bus stop with a raging man of Middle Eastern background. The man shouts at strangers around him, sometimes threatening, sometimes speaking to himself. The people waiting at the bus stop piece together that his family has died. I start to think of all the things that could have brought him here. The visuals are connected to this man’s sense of disorientation. When the text describes the man’s encounter with us, it is night and darkness. At one point the image cuts and we see Brussels in the day but a darkness has descended over it, and it almost seems to be on fire. This is where my text starts to speculate on how this man may have gotten here. Even if it isn’t his journey it is someone else’s. So his rage becomes a conduit for the totality of that experience, and the visuals evoke the past, even after arrival. At the time I didn’t have a particular visual reference although I was watching several films a day, so I’m sure it all just poured into me. Actually this film was born out of an exercise called »Sound Before Image«. We had to write a narration in our native languages, then construct a soundscape, and only after that could we start to work on the visuals. So the visuals grew out of the soundscape.

Are you going to do more poetry films in the future?

Yes, I think so. Actually, my last film project in Sweden was about an artistic installation based on poetry by Danira Benitez, a Stockholm-based poet. It was great to work with someone else’s text and try new visual strategies.

About the filmmaker
Nayeem Mahbub is a Bangladeshi filmmaker currently based in Stockholm. He studied documentary direction at DOCNomads, a master’s programme spread between Lisbon, Budapest and Brussels. He has previously worked with the BBC and in the animation industry in Bangladesh. He is one of the co-founders of Unlocked Films, an international documentary film collective based in Austria. Most recently, he has completed A Blood-red Drop in a Blue Sea, a poetic documentary in Sweden and is currently developing his first feature. His previous films include The Valley, Continental Drift, The Wait and the animated film Murgi Keno Mutant.